Wrong but it’s Right

Durham student sex training is Thatcher’s legacy

Artillery Row

So far the battle against the madder trends in British progressivism has had all the effectiveness of an especially soggy paper bag. It easy to dismiss this stuff as silly, and mainly affecting a few naïve enthusiasts in rarefied settings. But a recent news story about Durham University (of all places) providing “training” for students involved in “adult sex work” so that they could make “informed choices” shows just how immediate the threat is, and how urgent the need to fight back.

According to a shocking report from the Times Durham University and its Student Union teamed up to provide a course that offered training to students either involved in or considering “sex work” (i.e. prostitution, stripping or online pornography) and the advertisement for the online training event reiterated the Union’s position of “support, de-stigmatisation and collaboration with expert organisations” in regard to student “sex workers”.

The right wing in Britain must confront the fact that that they have paved the way to this

As with the sex-work “toolkit” training infamously offered by Leicester University, this is part of a wider ideological movement known as “sex positivity”, which unlike much earlier left wing and feminist thought sees selling sex as emancipatory, and locates negative outcomes entirely with the stigma society assigns to “sex work”. The way this “training” is framed, and the ideology that shapes it leads to, as Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education notes, “legitimising a dangerous industry” and as a consequence the University is “badly failing in their duty to protect”. 

But outraged comments are not enough from the government – we need an all-out, unambiguous campaign against so-called “sex work”, with efforts at every level of policy and public services to guide vulnerable young people away from it, educate them about the risks and social costs, and to provide clear exit routes for those wishing to leave the sex trade. Stronger measures, drawing on the Scandinavian model, must be taken against johns and pimps, and the blind eye that British police have thus far taken to “sex work” can no longer be tolerated. 

In the short term universities must be expressly forbidden, if need be through legislation, from encouraging students into this dangerous and corrosive world, and should be required to offer support expressly aimed at discouraging students from “sex work”, informing them about the risks, and providing them help to desist. 

For far too long those who claim to oppose dangerous new modes of “progressive” thought have simply traded in rhetoric (and pretty weak rhetoric too), and failed to take action. They have ceded institutions and legitimacy to the point that they’ve allowed idiotic and wicked people to quite literally lure their sons and daughters into prostitution. A more utter and pathetic capitulation of moral and social authority can scarcely be imagined. 

Left and right are deluded to think we can expose sex to market forces and survive unscarred

But one has to ask how we got to this point. The uncomfortable truth that the right wing in Britain must confront (I’m a heterodox leftist myself) is that they have paved the way to this situation no less than the wilder fringes of the left. We’ve already talked about the sins of omission, but the sins of commission are no less grave. The reason that so many young people see no difference between selling their labour and selling the most intimate aspects of their life is that an unrestrained capitalism, and a culture of materialism and rampant consumerism, has encouraged them to erase exactly that distinction. 

Everywhere in our society sex is commodified and sold, from billboards to music videos, from reality TV to social media. Even beyond the area of sex, young people are encouraged to “market” and “sell themselves” and to develop online “brands”. The Conservative party is still under the spell of an increasingly outmoded commitment to free market ideology, and despite gestures under May and Johnson towards an older and more substantial tradition of conservatism, those views remain entrenched and continue to shape government policy. 

The revolution in social attitudes that began on the left in the 60s was completed by the Thatcher government in the 80s, creating a society increasingly divorced from its most basic instincts and traditions: moderation, courtesy, modesty and mutual aid. The shattering of our old social strictures has not led to a smaller state; indeed it has only seen government interfere in ever more aspects of our lives as isolated individuals look less and less to civil society and community for their needs and a sense of security. 

Left and right increasingly share a delusion that individuals can expose the most intimate aspects of their lives to the chaos of market forces and the most brutal transactional logic, and walk away unscarred. But as the full implications of the dominance of commercial forces in our culture becomes clear, complacency is no longer an option.

Those who oppose such things must set aside doubt and hesitation, and embrace a spirit of zeal and moral self-confidence in their rhetoric and actions. It’s not enough anymore to criticise the excesses and fondly imagine that everything will go back to normal. We have to assert an alternative set of values, and insist on their implementation in law, policy and institutional practice. We’re in a fight for the soul of our society, and surrender is not an option. 

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